Eulogy for Don McGaffin



I first walked into KING television as an employee in September 1977. Before that I was a lifelong viewer, growing up with Wunda Wunda, Stan Boreson, Charles Herring, and Al Wallace. And though I was probably more media-aware than most viewers, for me KING NEWS SERVICE in 1977 was three people: Jean, Mike, and that intense, edgy guy named McGaffin. He stood out from the rest of the reporters because his stories almost always had a subtext, and the subtext almost always was, "Just look at what these bastards are trying to get away with!" The designated bastards changed from day to day, but McGaffin's well-written, well-spoken, subtle outrage was constant, and compelling.

I wondered what he was like. I think you can usually tell the true nature of people on television if you watch them for a while, no matter what persona they're trying to present. For instance, even with his studied gentility, Bill Moyers clearly thinks he's God's gift to the media, and did anybody really have to read Geraldo Riviera's book to find out he's scum? But from the retail side of the screen, McGaffin was very hard to decipher: he was an enigma, wrapped in a mystery, wrapped in Harris tweed, wearing a bizarre hat.

My first day at KING, he invited me into his office, pulled a bottle of Scotch out of his bottom desk drawer, and we drank to my arrival. And then he told me that to conclude the welcoming ritual, I had to go to the office next door and co-habit with the sports lady--that was almost how he put it.

That night, after I did my first review on the set--Exorcist Two--I was walking back up the stairs to the newsroom and he was coming the other way. He grabbed the script out of my hand, wrote a grade on the top of the page, and kept on going, without saying a word. I framed the script. B plus.

Don told me years later that, shortly after I arrived, Al Wallace marched into his office, put his foot up on Don's desk and said, "That guy Palmer is after our jobs." Apparently Don said, "Well, he can have mine any time," and Al stormed out. So Al and I, perhaps understandably, were never that close. But Don and I became friends. It was still a long time before I understood him, as much as anyone can understand anyone else. I finally realized that Don was that exceedingly rare and precious phenomenon: a true man of passion. He had passion for his work, and for the whole KING operation, not just his part of it. He had a passion for his friends, as well as a passion for his enemies that made him an impressive foe. Above all, more than anyone I have ever known, Don had that overworked and usually misunderstood cliché, a passion for life.

So at KING Five News that made him our Zorba the Greek, but without all the dancing and ouzo. Don was more Zorba the Mick, with classic Irish attributes like wit and, yes, cunning: a devotion to the right word in the right place, and an aversion to louts, loudmouths, bullies, and frauds. He enjoyed telling stories, and hearing them. He was a grand talker and listener. Irish.

Don especially loved children. My favorite clip of his work is from El Salvador. Walking through the forest, accompanied by guerillas who only a few hours before nearly executed him, the group was attacked by little boys playing with wooden guns. Don stopped and played with those future revolutionaries like they were all on a Ballard playground, and not in the middle of a war zone--and Randy Partin got the shot.

Randy, and I, and all of Don's friends who are also parents, know the genuine affection he had for our kids--sometimes more affection than he had for us, which is understandable. The night my son Ned was born, Cathy was in the early hours of labor when our maternity ward door suddenly opened. Standing there was a beaming man in a white doctor's coat--I think the name tag said "Dr. Benson." I was, of course, McGaffin. He'd brought McDonald's cheeseburgers, in case were hungry, and had gone through two door marked NO ADMITTANCE to get to us. He told us that a white man wearing a white doctor's coat can easily walk into any hospital room in America.

He and I ate the burgers until the smell of them made Cathy nauseous--which wasn't long--and then he left. And from that night on, he was Ned's friend too.

One of the reasons I think there are so few people of true passion in this world is that it's not easy to be one--the frustration of being with those who don't care about things as much as you do must be maddening at times.

People of passion are not always easy to be around, either, especially in a collaborative operation like television news. There's a famous Bill Mauldin cartoon from World War Two. Willie and Joe are hunkered down in a muddy hole, and Willie says, "The hell this isn't the most important foxhole in the world. I'm in it." I think Don went out the door of KING Five News every day thinking, "The hell this isn't the most important story in tonight's newscast. I'm doing it." Being the man that he was, he had to believe that, to do his job. And he was often right. But it can't have been easy telling him when he was wrong.

I'm one of the 98% of the people in this room who are thankful we never had to supervise Don McGaffin. The smart bosses who did--Ancil, Dorothy, Norm Heffron, some others--recognized his unique talents, felt his passion, and got out of his way as much as they could. The dumb bosses he had--and I could name a few of them, too--tried to control him or dismiss him. They tried to slip the bridle on McGaffin and herd him into the traces. They never had a chance, not with him. Quite simply, in a group of some very good people, Don McGaffin was the best of us. And the fact that he knew it does nothing to diminish that achievement.

In 1984, Bill Fenster and I did a documentary on the 40th anniversary of D-Day. It ended with a standup in the military cemetery above Omaha Beach, where more than 9,000 American warriors are laid to rest. After the show aired, McGaffin told me he hwas worried about that standup when it began--worried that it would become maudlin and overly sentimental--but that the quotation made it work. It's a line I'd seen on the wall of the chapel that sits in the middle of all those graves. And it's the way I'll remember Don.

"Think not only upon their passing, but remember the glory of their spirit."